It took two days of furious action last weekend to reduce the field in the national basketball championship from 16 of the country's best teams to a final four; but it took only a minute after the results were in for every follower of the sport from coast to coast to realize he had good reason to be singing that old folk song to himself that goes:
There's a great time coming
And it's not far off;
Been long, long, long on the way.
The great time is this Saturday, the place is Louisville and the reason the song is in the air is that there is now every chance those two bitter enemies and implacable basketball powers, Cincinnati and Ohio State, are actually going to have their dreamed-of replay of last year's championship game.
For a full year Cincinnati's champion Bearcats have been brooding and boiling because they felt their surprise win over Ohio State in Kansas City last March was looked on as a fluke. They want to prove it wasn't. And for that same long year Ohio State's Buckeyes have been burning and broiling about the overtime defeat (70-65) that cost them their second title in a row. They want to prove it was a fluke.
Now, improbably enough, considering the chances of the same two teams facing each other in the finals two years in a row are about nil, each must win just one more game to set up the most dramatic championship battle ever. Ohio State has a semifinal game on Friday night against the eastern regional winner, Wake Forest, while Cincinnati plays an upstart underdog from the West, UCLA. The winners then meet in Saturday's grand finale. An NCAA tournament official estimated last week that 100,000 tickets could have been sold for Saturday night's game. Freedom Hall, the game site, seats 18,000, and 25,000 ticket orders were received the first day of sale in a flood of money and requests reminiscent of a World Series.
While Louisville's lucky ticket holders may have considered last weekend's regional tournaments as nothing but routes to the finals, the regionals themselves were offering ample excitement and revelations of their own. Wake Forest, led by its arm-flailing, coat-throwing coach, Baptist Preacher Bones McKinney, had the devil's own time winning the eastern regional in College Park, Md. There were 11,700 spectators filling the pastel-colored seats in the University of Maryland's spacious field house when McKinney's tall and strong Deacons began play Friday night against St. Joseph's. Wake Forest had reduced McKinney to a nervous ruin four days before when it had to come from behind to beat Yale in an overtime. Now, almost sadistically, it set about torturing its coach again. The Deacons' two biggest men, 6-foot-8 Len Chappell and 6-foot-11 Bob Woollard, at times showed about as much life as the Colossus of Rhodes, and little St. Joe's stole the ball and the play. With 38 of the game's 40 minutes gone, Wake was behind 72-66. McKinney, catapulting out of his seat at every play, tugging frantically at his dazzling red socks, throwing towels high in the air and finally doing the same with his coat, didn't have a prayer of winning at this point.
So he did a foolish thing. He ordered Wake Forest into a full-court press. This is absurd because Wake is neither fast nor agile, and St. Joe's is both. But suddenly St. Joe's normally smooth guards couldn't handle the ball. They threw away two passes and handed away a third. With 28 seconds left, Wake Guard Billy Packer sank a desperation set shot to make it 74-72, St. Joseph's favor. With 13 seconds left, St. Joe's called a time-out before attempting a free throw. McKinney, thanking the angels for that because he had no timeouts left, gave his team a play in case St. Joe's missed the shot. St. Joe's did miss, the play got the ball to Packer and, with four seconds to go, he threw in another long jump shot. In the subsequent overtime an awakened Wake won 96-85.
Nor did Wake Forest return to its earlier listless ways when it took on rugged Villanova the next night. Woolard and Chappell jumped up and down on each side of the basket like two giants on a teeter-totter, making Villanova fight furiously for every rebound. The rebound struggle seemed to tire the Wildcats and weaken their noted zone defense. Wake took the lead with 14 minutes to play and held it from there. At the end of the game Bones McKinney waved the only piece of cloth he hadn't handled in two nights, a large Confederate flag. The Dixie fans roared, and the Deacons headed for Louisville.
The NCAA's western regional was played in Provo, Utah, on the coffeeless, tealess, tobaccoless and even Cokeless campus of Brigham Young University. Perhaps basketball stirred the passions because other minor vice was so hard to come by, but Provo responded to the tournament with two crowds of 10,000, committees for every conceivable need and enough plaques for an Academy Award banquet. This in spite of the fact, as one Utah writer put it, that "the teams coming in here wouldn't excite your Aunt Abigail." He, of course, didn't know about that zany bunch of upstarts from Los Angeles, UCLA's Bruins. He learned, and so will Louisville.
The team with the second worst record in the entire NCAA tournament (16-9), sizzling UCLA literally ran away with the trophy, the plaques and the show at Provo. On the opening night, against Utah State, a team that prefers a rather deliberate style of play, UCLA displayed its blinding fast break at its best. Led by Globetrotter-slick sophomore guard Walt Hazzard, the Bruins moved so quickly they forced Utah State into an early—and desperate—press. UCLA countered with whistling passes to Center Fred Slaughter, who would then slip the ball to a guard driving for a lay-up. When State tried to close the middle, frail, pale Gary Cunningham fired in shot after shot from the corner. Ahead 43-30 at half time, UCLA frittered away its lead, as it often does, and then happily snatched it back again, as it also often does, to win 73-62.
In the final game the next night UCLA took on Oregon State and its seven-foot center, Mel Counts. State, too, tried to press from the beginning, but Green and Hazzard always found room to get the ball up the court, and every Oregon State mistake seemed to mean a basket for UCLA. Slaughter, only 6 feet 5 and no match for Counts in inches, showed Counts and the crowd that speed mattered more than height—Slaughter was a state 100-yard-dash champion in high school. The half-time lead was 44-30, and midway through the second half the UCLA crowd began cheering, "Louisville, Louisville, Louisville."
Staid Coach John Wooden showed no great emotion over having his first NCAA semifinalist in 14 years at UCLA. In the dressing room after the game he was patting each player on the head and murmuring, "I'm proud of you."
"We're proud of you, too, Coach," said a player quietly. That's one reason the team nobody heard of is off to Louisville.
There were no surprises about the winner of the midwestern regional, held in Manhattan, Kans. What did emerge was an absolutely awesome picture of Cincinnati's Bearcats. On the previous Monday, Cincinnati had won its way into the NCAA tournament by beating Bradley 61-46. Bradley averages 80.6 points a game. On Friday night Cincy gave Creighton just 46 points while winning 66-46. Creighton averages 76.3 points a game. Before Saturday's final against Colorado the Colorado coach, Sox Walseth, asked both facetiously and ruefully, "Has an NCAA tournament team ever been held scoreless?" One thing is sure. If it ever happens it is going to happen to one of the opponents of Ed Jucker's Cincinnati teams. The Bearcats gave Colorado that same total—46 points—to conclude a fantastic week of defensive basketball.
The Cincy front line of Ron Bonham (6 feet 5), Paul Hogue (6 feet 9) and George Wilson (6 feet 10) plays defense as if that were 80% of the game—which is precisely what Jucker believes. Against Creighton on Friday night it made a shambles of the play of Paul Silas, the nation's leading rebounder. Hogue and Wilson batted away three of the first four shots Silas tried. Cincinnati's guards, Tom Thacker and Tony Yates, were applying their usual pressure at the same time. As a result, Creighton took 41 shots in the first half and made just eight. The second half was worse. Creighton scored two baskets in 14 minutes.
"Defense saved us," said Jucker after the game, though it wasn't clear from what.
The next night Colorado played a cautious slow-down game and managed to be trailing only 28-26 after 15 minutes. But playing a slow-down game against Cincinnati is like choosing the Chinese water torture instead of drowning. The Bearcats prefer it, and drip by drip they drive you mad. Hogue added 22 points to his 24 of the previous night, displaying some of his finest offensive work. Cincy won 73-46.
"We are at our peak now," said Ed Jucker after the second game, "just as we were last year when we went to Kansas City for the NCAA finals. We're ready." Nothing could be more obvious.
In Iowa City, Iowa, meanwhile, Ohio State showed it wasn't quite that ready. On Friday night against Western Kentucky, the Buckeyes looked as cold as the snow-covered Iowa landscape (snow-covered for 95 straight days, residents point out with what sounds like pride). Jerry Lucas, the All-Everything of basketball, was held to nine points by the same kind of triple-teaming that gave him only nine against Louisville in the first NCAA tournament game last year. "I have never been so tired," he said. "Three times up and down the floor and I was done."
With the score tied 19-19 after 10 minutes, Lucas picked up his third foul and Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor took him out. What followed will fascinate Ed Jucker, for sophomore Gary Bradds played the rest of the half and Ohio State moved out to a 13-point lead and won handily, if not easily, 93-73.
Kentucky beat Butler the same night to set up the most intriguing game in all the regionals, Ohio State vs. Kentucky. Wily old Adolph Rupp was in rare form as he looked forward to the prospect. "We're not going to challenge Ohio State's right to be No. 1," said Kentucky's famous coach, and you could have sung a song to his Kansas twang. "We'll let Cincinnati do that. But if Ohio State isn't hitting and we are lucky it might be a fair game. Now, if they are hitting and we aren't lucky I just might go home at half time." Fred Taylor was told this as he was wiping the sweat from his face after the Western Kentucky game. "He's never gone home at half time yet," said Fred.
All of which is coaches' talk. It translates as follows:
Rupp: We're going to lick you.
Taylor: Like hell you are.
Taylor was right. He put Ohio State's defensive ace, John Havlicek, on Kentucky's sophomore wonder, Cotton Nash. Havlicek handled Nash so well that Rupp benched him twice, and without scoring from the usually impressive Nash, Kentucky had no chance.
Lucas, meanwhile, was making sure Kentucky had no chance anyway. Kentucky had beaten Ohio State when Lucas was a sophomore—one of the five losing college games he has played in—and Lucas never forgets. After seven minutes of play the score was tied 8-8. In the next eight minutes Lucas scored 23 of Ohio State's 25 points, and the basket that wasn't his was a debatable tip-in by a teammate after a Lucas hook shot. In one stunning 60-second burst he made three consecutive three-point plays, being fouled each time as he hooked the ball in. He had 25 points as the first half ended. The score was 41-35. Kentucky never threatened seriously after that, losing 74-64.
But Rupp's assistant coach, Harry Lancaster, had a word of warning for Ohio State. "If they make as many mistakes against Cincinnati as they made against us  they'll get whipped good," he said.
Cincinnati is coming into the semifinals in a better position than Ohio State. On the basis of its play last week it will most likely be favored by the oddsmakers. Facing UCLA, it will tower over John Wooden's pesky gnats, and though UCLA is going to delight the Louisville crowd it is going to have an awful time running a successful fast break against the Bearcats. Ohio State, on the other hand, should have more difficulty with Wake Forest. If Wake's big men can control the backboards and if Packer is hitting, the game will be close. But that's a lot of ifs.
A Cincinnati-OSU final would pit the country's best defense against its finest offense. Jucker has managed to convince George Wilson that you can win recognition as a defensive player, and Wilson is much improved since December, when he was tense and overeager. Bonham, the other starting sophomore, is the team's only defensive weak spot, but he, too, has improved, and he has become the Bearcats' best shot as well. Paul Hogue is as powerful and awe-inspiring as ever. Tony Yates, at guard, could hardly get better. One sidelight of the seething feeling behind an Ohio State-Cincinnati final is that Ed Jucker is incensed because for two years Ohio State has always led the weekly national polls, because Cincinnati has no player who has made first-string All-America and because Fred Taylor has twice been named Coach of the Year. Jucker thinks Hogue should be a top-ranked All-America. He is wrong there, but he does have a player who, if it were not for the absurd voting system, would be one and richly deserves it. That is Tony Yates who, though relatively unrecognized, is the best basketball technician on this team.
Finally, Cincinnati has played a slightly tougher schedule than Ohio State this year, and played it well, winning its last 16 straight. It is a beautifully disciplined, formidable team. "People said we were lucky when we won last year," said Paul Hogue angrily last week. "We're going to show them who is boss."
Perhaps. But this isn't last year in Columbus either. Ohio State now has a strong bench. The team has been looking at the movies of the 1961 game and is understandably appalled at what Taylor calls "the way we just stood around." This year a man who is standing around can be quickly replaced. In 6-foot-5 Doug McDonald the Buckeyes have a much improved forward who gives them a strong man where they were weakest last season. If Cincinnati's Wilson proves too tall and tough under the backboards, Taylor is now in a position to try something that would surprise everyone. He could bring in 6-foot-8 Gary Bradds, who is sharp-elbowed and most enthusiastic, as a forward, to give Lucas some giant-size help.
Most important of all, however, is the play of Lucas. He has his ordinary games. He is, by nature, a quiet, self-effacing, coolly professional young man. His wrath is rare indeed. But he is what Adolph Rupp would call "a bad man to rile up." There is every likelihood that Lucas would take the floor against Cincinnati plenty riled up. Ohio State might need 40 points out of Lucas that night. Those 18,000 screaming people in Louisville may well see Lucas score that many. Favored or not, our choice is Ohio State.